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Tuesday, April 25

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Do you think of yourself as a Midwesterner? A Northerner? If you live in Chicago, author Ted McClelland would call you a Great Laker. McClelland spent last summer driving around the Great Lakes — a 9,600-mile trip that took him as far west as Duluth, Minnesota, and as far east as Kingston, Ontario — to research his upcoming book, The Third Coast, which looks at the Lakes as a distinct region of North America, with its own culture and common interests. Gapers Block is pleased to present a series of excerpts from the book over the next several months.

Marquette, Michigan

You can date a town's heyday by its architecture. Marquette peaked at the turn of the last century, when iron and copper were crumbling off the mine walls. The old city hall, which rises from the peak of Washington Street, before it begins its steep dip to Lake Superior, is a Romanesque temple, built from local red sandstone. The copper-domed courthouse, where Jimmy Stewart hammed it up for justice in Anatomy of a Murder, looks like the Old Main of a land grant college, capped with a tarnished planetarium. Henry Ford, in his high collar and lanky boiled-wool suit, would not look like a ghost if he strolled past the main strip's flat-faced storefronts.

The Upper Peninsula wildlife saw opportunity in Marquette's hundred-year decline: on the Saturday I came to town, the Mining Journal, the local paper, ran a front page photo of a bear cub who had wandered into the shrinking city to forage.

I was in Marquette to hear Sycamore Smith, the North Country's Other Great Folk Singer. Sycamore, whose real name I have gratefully forgotten, was one-half of the Muldoons, a duo who mined the Upper Peninsula's Wild North past for carnivalesque ballads about miners, lumberjacks, sheriffs, whores and saloons. Their CD, with its echoey, garage-level production, and numerous kazoo solos, was my U.P. driving soundtrack. I had rumbled over dirt roads while listening to "Lake Superior Fireball," and "Shan-tan-titty-town," a song about "a house of ill-repute that's gettin' rave reviews." But the Muldoons had broken up. It was "artistic differences, audience indifferences," according to Sycamore. His other half was hermiting in a cabin on a country road. Sycamore had found a new drummer, and a Saturday night gig at Club 231.

Marquette is a college town — Northern Michigan University is here — but that alone could not account for the punk-rock scene inside Club 231. It was a performance space, behind an art gallery. Five bucks at the door, magic marker on your hand. The floor and the stage were plywood, the pressed tin ceiling was peeling away to reveal wooden beams, the burgundy back wall was chalked with graffiti, and just in case any of the acts played the national anthem, there was an American flag, defaced with a duct-tape cross. Every hipster north of the Mackinac Bridge was working this room. I saw bug-eyed sunglasses, a "U.S. Space Camp" t-shirt. Sycamore's drummer, Sammy Name, was wandering around in a black-and-white sailor sweater when he was suddenly, unexpectedly, hit on.

"I like that sweater," a girl said.

Sammy thanked her, then described the garment's heritage. "I got it in Japan. It's from Denmark."

Sycamore Smith was the midnight act. Tall and gaunt, like the tree whose name he took, Sycamore had a long forelock of brown hair sweeping out from under his Gay Nineties bowler hat. Once he took that long-legged step onto the stage, he loomed over the room like a seven-foot preacher. Sycamore fit himself into a wire-metal kazoo holder with a sign saying "This Machine Kills Itself," and curled over his guitar, Johnny Cash-style. The big ones have to. The drums snapped three times, the guitar strings jangled, and Sycamore began singing about Rosie and Flanagan, two of the dancers at "The Razor Ball":

There's a big crap game in the hall
Everybody fightin' and yellin'
Rosie hit the floor when Flanagan rolled
Because he fired the dice at her melon
Rosie got up and said goddamn it all
Grabbed old Flanagan and threw him through a wall
And he landed on a beehive as I recall
Down at the Razor Ball.

Then came the break, a stomping kazoo turn that came on like a swarm of hornets. Sycamore sang about Old Doc Rouch, the lewd sawbones of "Bottomless Town," who goes to the gallows for playing doctor with the sheriff's daughter. He sang "Little House on the Black River Falls," in which he set out his disappointing bride on a boat, "tied her to the anchor, ran along the bank, and shot it 'til I sank her." It was the best kind of folk-rock, a Northern version of The Band's re-creations of Civil War Dixie. The music sounded modern, even though it was played with traditional instruments, and the lyrics evoked old-timey characters while reminding us that their passions were no different than ours.

02132006_sycamore1.jpg

Sycamore ended his show with "The Nantucket Waltz," a litany of bawdy limericks. This was the kicker:

If your husband's a dumb frickin' bore
If he comforts you some, but you bicker more
If you're quite under-sexed,
And it's making you vexed
Then you best go lie under a Sycamore!

The Portside Bar is across an alley from Club 231. After the show, I drank beer on the deck with Sycamore and his drummer. My first question almost got me thrown into the lake.

"Were the Muldoons named after Muldoons Pasty Shop?"

I'd seen the restaurants all over M-28, the highway into Marquette.

"Get out of here, right now!" Sycamore laughed, thumbing me out like an ump. "We actually got the name from a history book, and then Muldoons opened. Probably within two weeks, people knew Muldoons better for pasties than for being a two-man duo."

Writing songs in the U.P. is a tough racket. Most barflies demand Tom Petty covers. Marquette's biggest brush with rock-and-roll fame occurred on the day the Rolling Stones jetted in to attend the funeral of their road manager, Royden "Chuch" Magee. The Muldoons started trying to break out in the late 1990s, when Sycamore returned home after two years of hanging out in Brooklyn. They played their first gig in the basement of a porn shop. By the time they broke up, they were a North Country phenomenon, with a following from Fargo to the Soo. The Muldoons couldn't get a gig in Chicago, but they connected with music fans in far-flung small towns. Sycamore had recently slipped away from his job as a janitor in the V.A. hospital to play a solo tour that took him to podunks like Logan, Utah, and Fort Collins, Colorado. Every little town had a stage like Club 231, said Sammy.

"For a town this size, that's so far removed from a major city — we've got eight hours to go to Detroit or Chicago — we're stuck in our little island of inaccessibility, so we had to create our own scene."

"When I lived in Brooklyn," Sycamore said, "I worked full time at a bar full of every kind of person, from 21-year-old to 82-year-olds, all walks of life, all obsessed with talking about movies, books and music."

"It's just you and me here," Sammy said.

Sycamore and Sammy were both sons of Detroit-area migrants, and they had inherited their parents' metropolitan values. They weren't interested in deer hunting and snowmobiles, like their Yooper peers.

"Before Sam and I played here, we used to sit around and talk about records," Sycamore said.

"If it weren't for the Internet, I would have moved to the big city five years ago," said Sammy, who is 23. "But I can get any music I want here. I figure I can live in a big city when I'm older. I like living here when I'm young, because I can go out and go hiking. I can sit in front of a desk when I'm older."

Sammy wanted me to see one of his favorite hiking spots — Wetmore Point, a roadless cove on Lake Superior. It was 2 in the morning, but we all agreed to meet at 10, in the Dead River Café.

The Dead River is the daytime headquarters for Marquette's scenesters. You can buy a Mining Journal or a New York Times across the street at Book World, then spend the morning drinking coffee and waiting for a pick-up Scrabble game. The café is owned by a gray-haired hippie named Theo, who long ago belonged to an Ann Arbor food co-op. Going north was the right move. There's a misconception that Ann Arbor is Michigan's gateway back to the Sixties. Ann Arbor may be the state's most liberal city, but it's also the most modern: the University of Michigan is a finishing school for social-climbing careerists. The back-to-the-land types slipped away to northern Michigan, and they're still here, judging by the stacks of environmental pamphlets in the Dead River.

Sycamore walked through the front door in full hipster regalia: oversized shades, a shirt patterned with oak leaves, stovepipe jeans and motorcycle boots.

"Are you going to have coffee?" he asked, as he ordered a miniature Styrofoam vat. "It's too early in the morning for coffee," I said. "I'm drinking papaya juice."

02132006_sycamore2.jpg

Sammy was still asleep in his parents' basement, so we drove over to pick him up in Sycamore's Ford Explorer, with a CD of Bob Dylan influences playing on the speakers.

At Wetmore Point, the trailhead is on the summit of a half-bowl of sloping woodland and sandstone cliff, the same shade of ochre as City Hall. We stair-stepped downhill like crabs, pausing for footholds on stones and hemlock roots.

"This is a path that's good for a city boy," Sammy said, leading me down a gentle grade.

"We don't have hills in Chicago," I said. "But if we were in Chicago, we'd probably all be going out to brunch instead of hiking."

"When I visited my friend Eric in Chicago, we went to this café called Lula's where he had some artwork," he said. "The waiters had the most indifferent attitude."

Sycamore brought up an episode of "This American Life," in which the correspondent asked the friendly waiters to act blasé. They got bigger tips.

"Maybe the customers were afraid of them," I said.

The beach was walled off from the rest of Michigan by the five-story cliff. There was a family roaming the sands, but they had arrived by boat. The boat's prow had dug a wedge in the beach, and its stern wavered with every tide. There were days, when the wind blew the topwater inland, that Lake Superior was warm enough for swimmers. We didn't test it that morning. As we hiked back up through the red pines, Sycamore recited a lyric he'd been noodling with. "Flanagan was drunk/ But not drunk as a skunk/ No — more like drunk as a trunk full of skunks/ I didn't know what to think/ I only knew what I thunk/ He was pitching like the Fitz pitched/ Just before she sunk."

"People might not get that line about the Fitz," Sammy said. He knew it was the Edmund Fitzgerald, but the Trolls, the 97 percent of Michiganders who lived under the Mackinac Bridge...

"Everyone in the U.P. calls it the Fitz," Sycamore protested. "My mom used to bake a cake every year on the day that it sank."

Sycamore drove back into town with the Velvet Underground on the CD player. He'd just passed the MARQUETTE 19,661 sign when I spotted a brown animal crossing at the light ahead of us. It was the size of an Irish setter, but it was moving like a sloth — lazily, fluidly. It was too slow to be a dog.

"That's the bear!" I shouted. "That's the bear I saw in the paper!"

The bear was leaving a storage facility, in search of more garbage. The authorities had urged the public not to hassle the cub, so traffic halted while he crossed the street. Everyone wanted to gawk, anyway. Sycamore didn't know whether to be fascinated, or embarrassed.

"Uh-oh," he said to me. "Now you're going to think Marquette is the wilderness. That's the first time I've ever seen a bear in Marquette. I've seen a lot in the Keweenaw, but never in Marquette."

Read on:

1. Sheboygan & Manitowoc County, Wisconsin
2. Marquette, Michigan
3. Mackinac Island, Michigan
4. Grand Marais, Minnesota
5. Pays Plat First Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada
6. Isle Royale, Michigan
7. Rogers City, Michigan
8. Toronto, Canada
9. Hamilton, Ontario
10. Hamburg, New York
Buy the book.

 

About the Author(s)

Edward McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, published in 2005 by Chicago Review Press. The Third Coast was released by the same publisher in 2008.

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